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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee - 16/09/2014 - Australia’s future activities and responsibilities in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters

MILLER, Professor Denzil George Maxwell, Director, Antarctic Tasmania and Science Research Development, Department of State Growth, Government of Tasmania

[11:57]

CHAIR: Welcome. I remind the witness and other government witnesses appearing this afternoon that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. I draw the attention of officers to an order of the Senate of 13 May 2009 specifying the process by which a claim of public interest immunity should be raised. Copies are available from the secretariat. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Prof. Miller : Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I thank the committee for not only receiving our submission but also inviting us to make a verbal presentation and participate in these hearings. As an Australia-Antarctic gateway, Tasmania is very much part of the nation's Antarctic and Southern Ocean activities. Indeed, the Southern Ocean starts right outside the window, if this were not a river, that is. We are very proud of the association we have through the institutions that are lodged here—for example: the Australian Antarctic Division, the university, CSIRO, IMAS, and of course the 26-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The benefits of these associations are listed on page 2 of our submission. I will give you additional information in this presentation which will add to what is present in that submission.

The most recent developments have been the federal government commitment to continuation of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre—the ACE CRC—a proposed Hobart based Antarctic gateway research partnership and related other Antarctic and Southern Ocean infrastructure developments, including, most notably, the extension to the Hobart airport runway.

The government recognises, and that is the Tasmanian government—and just to save time I will just refer to it as 'the government' and I hope there will be no confusion—that issues raised by the committee's terms of reference are largely the preserve of the federal government. Consequently the submission focuses on Tasmania's role in international Antarctic cooperation. In that context it looks at the potentially broad consequence of reduced resourcing for national Antarctic and Southern Ocean assets in the state, such as the Australian Antarctic Division. The submission therefore gives particular emphasis to potential negative impacts on the gateway that could arise from an erosion of Australia's future activities and responsibilities in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters.

There are a number of these concerns. I will summarise these for you and reference them to the pages of the submission. The first is that Australia's ability to identify, forge and meet Southern Ocean and Antarctic needs—and we have heard earlier what those may be and particularly the question of exercising sovereignty and projecting a national identity into those geographically adjacent areas—if there is downgrading, will need to be done in a matter that has a fiscal priority, and that is going to be particularly important if essential activities are not going to continue. These activities are very much the substance of those that deal with, rely on or underpin international cooperative endeavours, particularly in the science and sovereignty-projection fields.

Erosions of Australia's and international and Antarctic and Southern Ocean affiliations and cooperation is likely to negatively impact on the Tasmanian Southern Ocean Antarctic gateway future sustainability. This could compromise the regional development in the state and could foreclose on socioeconomic benefits from, and investment in, Tasmanian based Southern Ocean and Antarctic associated activities. Both these concerns, if you will, will coalesce to severely impact Tasmania's national place in Antarctic affairs and most notably in respect to the state's jurisdiction over Macquarie Island.

The key point raised in the submission relates to resourcing in the context of those three points just made. In pursuing a nationally inclusive Southern Ocean and Antarctic partnership approach, the Tasmanian government is very mindful that potential economic losses from economic downgrading of the gateway may compromise the objectives of the federal government's Joint Commonwealth and Tasmanian Economic Council imperatives.

The Tasmanian government has a role to play in expanding Antarctic gateway and Southern Ocean gateway capabilities, values and cost efficiency to ensure that national Antarctic interests are not compromised or undermined. This would boost Australian strategic interests as well as geopolitical, diplomatic, legal, scientific and policy aspirations. Complementary expansion of the gateway would serve to support nationally relevant expeditions, national governance priorities and international scientific research in the adjacent Southern Ocean, as well as in the Antarctic territories in eastern Antarctica.

These are all opportunities—outlined on page 3 and 4 of the submission—that build on and further stimulate economic, social, research and policy benefits derived from Tasmania's status as the national gateway and, as already noted, build efficient, effective and internationally integrated partnerships amongst Hobart based research and governance institutions focused on the Antarctic and Southern Ocean. A key element in this term of resourcing is the delivery of the current Australian Antarctic Division modernisation program, particularly the current initiatives to review and look into the future with respect to the replacement of the Aurora Australis. This, again, has a key role to play in the future sustainability of the gateway.

In that context the Tasmanian government offers some considerations in terms of a federal and state government association that would support and mutually reinforce essential expertise and effective delivery of required infrastructure and/or outcomes to ensure that both national and Tasmanian Antarctic gateway strategic priorities and expectations are met with respect to Southern Ocean and Antarctic national activities. It would mandate integration and coordination of federal and Tasmanian government commitments, initiatives and priorities to continue meeting current and future Southern Ocean and Antarctic strategic objectives. It would explore development of a Southern Ocean Antarctic public-private partnership between Australian Antarctic and Southern Ocean activities and Tasmanian businesses, where relevant, particularly improving a government gateway outcomes. In this regard I would make special mention of the Tasmanian Polar Network, which is actually a unique private sector-government association as part of this gateway support that is unique worldwide. Finally, recognise that both national and Tasmanian commitments are important to identifying, inspiring and legitimising the strategic importance of Australia's Southern Ocean and Antarctic interests.

On page 4 the indication is made that this proposed approach would recognise that there is a need to align funding at federal and state level to ensure that significant disinvestment in national Antarctic and Southern Ocean marine activities does not augment uncertainty about the future of these activities or severely reduce their potential to deliver high-quality governance and scientific research outcomes. Finally, robust whole-of-government coordination is required to align the national strategic and the Tasmanian socioeconomic interests to become outcome and mutually beneficially focused and priority driven. Formal and informal task focused, stakeholder corporation, particular between the government, the Australian Antarctic Division, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and so forth, at all levels of government, should help to ensure sustained, coherent and cohesive delivery of essential gateway outcomes consistent with national Antarctic and Southern Ocean strategic imperatives. Involvement of Tasmanian based Antarctic and Southern Ocean enterprises, such as the Tasmanian Antarctic Gateway group and the Tasmanian Polar Network, with regular meetings between the Antarctic Division and state government role players to facilitate sustained and ground level translation of national policies and strategies into positive Antarctic gateway outcomes should be pursued. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I just wanted to follow up on the same question I asked the last presenters. Could you give the committee a brief overview of the economic importance of the community?

Prof. Miller : Thank you. I do not know whether it is a fortunate or an unfortunate thing, but the relative data has only been accumulated since about 2009. The indicative figures that we have relate only to the 2011-12 financial year, so I think there will be changes. We have not done the analysis of 2012-13 or 2013-14 as yet. As of 2011-12 there were just under 1,200 Tasmanians employed full-time in the sector, and the average wage was about $118,000 a year, which is just over twice the average wage in Tasmania. So it is quite a significant sector. That represents a direct contribution of about $187 million to the Tasmanian gross state product. That is about a 12 per cent growth compared to what happened in 2009-10. It is terribly unfortunate that we do not have other figures to see what has changed. We are going to pursue those.

The flow-on spending—a set of indirect spendings which include the spending in contributions to the gross state product of other states and spending in the states alone in terms of supply, and general housekeeping such as salaries and so on—is an additional contribution that brings up the total annual contribution to about $440 million.

There is another $341 million—these are figures we have recently completed—flowing from the science institutions in this state. We have heard from three of the major science institutions in the state; we will hear from the AAD later on, as well. That is an employment of a further 1,700-odd jobs, because some of the science jobs in the Antarctic sector are also obviously science jobs in the sector overall.

If you put these two together—the science, which is reputational, and the actual direct contribution—you are looking at something of the order of $600 million to $700 million per annum, based on those figures for 2011 and 2012.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have a specific question about the potential runway extension for Hobart airport. Is it your understanding that that extension is to give us the ability to fly into Antarctica?

Prof. Miller : That extension will certainly augment capabilities to fly bigger aircraft in and out of the Antarctic, depending, again, on complementary developments within the Antarctic itself. For example, the Americans use C-17s, which are very large aircraft. You can land them here but they cannot take off with a full load. We would be able to do that, with that extension.

That extension also has a broader economic importance in that it will allow direct, point to point, flights—particularly from China to Hobart—which would have possible significant potential with respect to tourism and the passage of high-value goods such as abalone, crayfish and time-sensitive goods like that. So it has quite a considerable importance, I think.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: My understanding is that the Christchurch-to-Antarctica route to the US airbase is worth about $150 million. We would be looking to compete with that business. Is that something you have assessed?

Prof. Miller : I am almost bordering upon an opinion here, but I will—

CHAIR: Use your discretion.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Given there is a business plan to go to the runway extension—

Prof. Miller : Certainly the business plan is in the process of being completed by the runway. That will be taken into consideration. It will save money in terms of being able to move more people into the Antarctic—provided, as I said, we have the landing facilities available in the Antarctic to do that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry, can I just pull you up on that point. Are you saying that we do not have them at the moment—that we will need to put new runways in Antarctica to cope with expanded—

Prof. Miller : That is completely out of my remit. The question of the future of the ice runway, as I understand it from the Antarctic Division—they can answer that question—is being looked at. Certainly if we are going to be talking about alternative aircraft, there is a possibility we may need to look at that further.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: This is a chicken-and-egg thing, is it? You have to have the runway there to cope with an extended—

Prof. Miller : A little bit. But there may be other things. The important thing with respect to Christchurch is that the Americans have a 50-year association with New Zealand. Certainly, there have been indications—colleagues from the AAD will be able to elaborate a bit on that—that they have been looking at an alternative. The Hobart runway is an alternative. I have no knowledge of whether that is a realistic assessment, and I would not predict either way.

The Chinese have a plane now. If we attract the Chinese to their two stations in eastern Antarctica that plane can be used. It is largely not intercontinental, but intracontinental. But having a base here for that plane to fly into the Antarctic would be a good thing.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is common knowledge that we are trying to attract Chinese investment in Hobart, and there will potentially be a lot of benefits to flow from that. Is a runway an integral part of that in luring their investment here and setting up base?

Prof. Miller : Indeed. I believe that the Chinese are very keen on direct air links. They see that as part of a package, if you like. Importantly, a large amount of their material goes in by sea. That is also important in terms of availability and having facilities within the port.

The Tasmanian state government has a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese that deals largely with continuing to pursue this partnership and to make this a gateway for the Chinese programs. That was signed in September last year and there is due to be a set of schedules which detail what the activities and support would entail. Part of that issue deals with the whole question of possibly having an office here for the Chinese program. I cannot tell you which direction this is going to go, because these are conversations that have not really been had, but, in developing a Chinese gateway base in Tasmania, I would not see at this stage there being a large commitment of having a research laboratory here. I think it will be very much about support for the vessel and support facilities—accommodation and that kind of thing, a support office and a storage facility. I think for the foreseeable future that is what that will be about. We have not done this exact assessment yet, but I think it would be anywhere between $15 million and $20 million a year.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We tend to talk about logistics being something that might lure the Chinese, but isn't our commitment to scientific research and our reputation for doing world-leading studies equally as important in getting the Chinese here?

Prof. Miller : Indeed. There has been a long scientific association between the Antarctic Division and the Chinese Antarctic program. That was also consolidated in a memorandum of understanding in 2012. That memorandum of understanding is looking for an upgrade in the very near future. But I would also add that it is not only China; it is also France. We have a 25-year association with France. We have also negotiated an MOU with them, which was signed about three weeks ago. That is the vessel you see in front of the Aurora. That program is worth $15-odd million to us—with the harbour fees supported in and out and the cooperation we get from the French. So there really are two countries involved. And the same kinds of facilities in terms of storage and possibly an office during the summer would be also be relevant for the French.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Almost all my questions have been answered and they follow on from questions on the Chinese and the French. Professor, I am of course aware that you had a long and distinguished career as head of CCAMLR, based in Hobart. The questions I am going to ask you are not asking for an opinion on behalf of the Tasmanian government—which you are representing here—but are asking you for an opinion based on your wide experience in matters Antarctic. Apart from the Chinese and the French, are there other countries we could encourage into Hobart or are there different new programs that we could be talking to the Chinese, the French and others about that would attract the sort of support that I might say has long been something that governments of all persuasions have directed towards Hobart for many, many decades?

Prof. Miller : Yes, thank you very much, Senator. While we are in virtually daily conversation—and that is both the Antarctic division and ourselves—when we have been asked specific questions to explore or the American program for the notion that I gave that it has become an alternative, last year we had two visits from the Nathaniel B Palmer, which is a research vessel. That vessel is coming back this summer, in January-February, for another two visits and we are getting at least one, if not two, visits from the Paul Ravel. Both of those are American research vessels. They have been involved with scientists from CSIRO and they are also doing their own work out of here. They are coming back here out of choice. They like coming to Hobart, believe it or not. They like the facilities and the support they get here.

At the state government level we are talking to India, who also has a presence in the Australian Antarctic territories, and Russia as well, because they have a presence in eastern Antarctica. So we are trying to grow this thing as far as we are able to. Basically there are two points I would like to emphasise there. The countries concerned will go to where it is most convenient and most competitive for them to go, so it is important that our gateway be competitive and convenient. It is certainly convenient for eastern Antarctica. In terms of competitive, we have this globally unique situation where 90 per cent of our science activities focused on the Antarctic, including the federal government and the Australian Antarctic Division, are located within a 20-kilometre radius of Hobart and we have a very strong formal association between the government on the ground and the companies and private enterprises that support this gateway in the term of the Tasmanian Polar Network. That is not emulated anywhere else in the world.

CHAIR: So outside of Hobart and Christchurch where is the base for Antarctica?

Prof. Miller : You have got Punta Arenas in southern Chile, Ushuaia in Argentina and Cape Town in South Africa.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: As much as we love our cousins in New Zealand, we have to ensure always that Hobart is a better place for these people to operate from than Cape Town, Christchurch or South America.

Prof. Miller : Yes, indeed. We do not just have to be competitive—it is not about competition; it is about winning. We need to give the best service and make sure we are the most convenient place for those vessels to come in the eastern Antarctic. We are not going to attract them from anywhere else, but certainly in the east Antarctic.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: My final question is one I really asked before. From your long association, are there new different things we might be doing? Have you ever sat around over a beer and said, 'If only—

CHAIR: This sounds like an opinion to me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is an opinion, but an expert opinion. Not as a government rep but as someone with a very distinguished interest, is there something that might help the committee to say to the parliament, 'It would be a good idea if you looked at doing X'?

Prof. Miller : Given my history I will not give an opinion; I will give a perception. If you really wanted to ask me in both my previous and present lives where and which country I looked at with envy for the Australian Antarctic associations and Southern Ocean activities, there was only one and that was Australia. It is the real deal as far as I am concerned. That goes right across all sorts of things. It goes across environmental stewardship, it goes across diplomatic action, it goes across scientific capability and competence, it goes across governance capability and it goes across political will—and I think Mr Exel gave a really good picture of that political will. Australia was way in the front in actually getting to this IUU problem and effectively dealing with it. It was a big commitment for a small country—a huge commitment.

For me and, as I say, in that perception, all the elements have to fit together to work. It is like a Lego game. I think a lot of them are self-evident. We have to accept that this is an expensive business—Antarctica is an expensive business—but the benefits that we receive as a nation from that business are enormous. It allows us to have a place that is very high and very central in the world. It allows us to look after an area south of us that is free of international discord. It was the first de-nuclearised continent on the planet. It fits in with our basic values. It is our space program. It is about the nation. To me and in my perception, that was something that I was always incredibly envious of and I am now very proud of. I hope I answered your question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You did, thank you.

Senator DASTYARI: Professor, you were saying earlier—and I quite like this comment from you—that we not only have to be competitive; we have to win. You talked about how competitive this space has become to attract the research dollars. Explain to me the consequences of cuts. I would like your take on this and the Tasmanian government's perspective as well. What will cutting one in four science research jobs do to that competitiveness?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Chairman, you would know that it puts the witness at a difficult disadvantage to even have to attempt to address that question.

Senator DASTYARI: The witness can answer it in the way that he wants to answer it. I think he is big enough and strong enough and tough enough to be able to figure that out.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am sure of that, but it is not a fair question to ask a government representative.

Senator DASTYARI: How is it not a fair question? We are talking about—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: He is a government representative—anyhow, you right: Professor Miller will be able to answer it without my help, I am sure.

Prof. Miller : I will certainly try without putting my foot in it. I think someone, and it was not me, made the point that it becomes very difficult to sell expertise when you do not have it. Our submission says clearly that, if there should be an erosion and if it should be in key, critical areas, there is a likelihood that there would be a loss of capability or maybe a loss of something else. In that case, the obvious, logical place to go is to say, 'What really is important? What really is it that we want to be delivering?' That is about setting priorities and that is why, I think, our submission goes to the issue that this has to be done across the two levels of government as a minimum. We all need to be in the same place, and there has been very strong bipartisan support that I am certainly aware of across both state and federal parliament that says exactly that. This is something we all talk about—and that, I think, is about as far as I can go. I have already gone a little further than I wanted to go and I am kind of a bit worried.

Senator DASTYARI: I want to check if this figure is right. Are you saying, if we were to attract the Chinese research hub here, that is worth $15 million to $20 million annually?

Prof. Miller : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: You would not have a figure of how many jobs that would be?

Prof. Miller : Basically, all that would be is the support jobs—the channelling companies and support jobs that deal with fuelling of vessels and whatever—which would not be wholly dependent on that activity because they would be doing other things, and an office. That would not, in my view, exceed probably five people and that probably would only be over the summer and, in half commitment, maybe another four or five people. So it would be small.

Senator DASTYARI: How do you get to the figure of $15 million to $20 million, then?

Prof. Miller : That is based on suppliers, fuel, portage fees and provedoring, which deals with accommodation, medical treatment, food and whatever.

Senator DASTYARI: I am sure you are aware of this and you surely know a lot more about this than I do. There is an ongoing big debate about Tasmania in terms of job prospects, employment, the economic goals and where it should head. Part of the reason we are down here is the future of the Tasmanian economy. As we move away from forestry and other areas into new areas, becoming the nation's scientific and research hub is the real economic opportunity for the future of Tasmania. I would like your take on that.

Prof. Miller : I alluded to that when I gave you the value of the science research industry in the state, which is the other half of my portfolio. Again, one has to be very careful in that we do not only do Antarctica marine science here; we do other science and we have—

Senator DASTYARI: All types.

Prof. Miller : Absolutely.

Senator DASTYARI: If you build an industry, you build an industry. If I build an airport, I get aeronautic expertise.

Prof. Miller : That is exactly right. To what extent, I will not hazard a guess, but I would say that we would have a great deal to lose if we lost that attendant expertise or it dissipated in some way or if we were to lose one of the large institutions such as CSIRO or AAD—and I do not think that that is on the cards. I think it is fairly crucial that we maintain this capability because, if we want to build around it, we have to have a capability to build around. How we maintain it and how we manage it, I think, is again the thrust of what we were saying. We need to do that in a collaborative way and we need to work towards what is really important in this particular package.

Senator DASTYARI: We talked before about 150 science research jobs—that was a rough figure and we will confirm that a bit later today when we talk to others—and the one in four jobs being lost. Obviously, there is talk of further rounds of budget cuts. Are you concerned or are we at the point down here in Tasmania where any further cuts start to risk, effectively, all the research that you are doing? Does it put us in a position where we then have to re-prioritise and look at which areas of research we are not going to be doing? What impact does that have on building this up?

Prof. Miller : I think the question was partly answered by some of the comments from the last presentation. The first instance is the whole notion that the uncertainty that is associated with how this is going to roll out is very difficult to deal with. We cannot make any predictions because we do not know how long this yard of string is going to be.

Senator DASTYARI: How do you plan, then?

Prof. Miller : It is very difficult, I would say—very, very difficult. We do the best we can; I think that is the simple answer. We fully acknowledge—and the state government, in fact, has done the same thing—the fact that there are fiscal issues at stake here. You have probably seen some of the debate around the impacts in the Public Service. We are not immune from that. We are a very, very small constituency and jurisdiction. Our concern is that uncertainty and what might appear to be relatively small changes might actually have a bigger effect in a small jurisdiction like ours than anywhere else. That is a concern and at the moment there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I want to make another economic assessment for 2012-13. Realistically, I have to think, 'I may not be able to do that because I don't have the money to do it.' That is important for what I am going to be thinking about or what we need to think about for 2014-15. Those are the kinds of things that are at play here at the moment, in our view.

Senator LAMBIE: I just want to clear something up with Senator Dastyari. You seem to be focusing a lot on the economic and social issues and what it will do for Tasmania in losing these people. They are only a very small piece of the pie. I just want to clear that right up. There are major issues as to why we have economic and social issues here in Tasmania. I understand where you are coming from.

Senator DASTYARI: Everyone understands that.

Senator LAMBIE: You just seem to be speeding on that, and there are much bigger issues in that department. I just wanted to make sure we are clear on that. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing today.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 35 to 13 : 15